The General

wri./prod./dir. john boorman
st. brendan gleeson, jon voight, maria doyle kennedy, angeline ball, adrian dunbar, sean mcginley
dop. seamus deasy
UK, 1997, 124 mins, rated M
Best Director 1998 Cannes Film Festival

John Boorman has already made a great contribution to world cinema with Projections , as well as several accomplished films such as Point Break, Hell in the Pacific, Deliverance, Excalibur, the Emerald Forest and Beyond Rangoon. The General is his latest film, about the notorious Irish criminal Martin Cahill, who was assasinated in 1994 after a legendary run of robberies and hijinks that put him on the wrong side of the police, the church, the state and the IRA. Cahill was a popular anti-authoritarian figure - a charismatic rogue who had two wives (both sisters), a harley davidson, a gang of drug addicts, a taste for high art, and exceptional talent for million-dollar break and enters. Audaciously shot in black and white, the film has a documentary clarity and sharpness which dodges what could easily have been fodder for a Channel 4 mini-series. Black and white is rather expensive to shoot with these days, as processing the stock costs more than colour and there are fewer directors and cinematographers who know how to use it and light for it. So its almost a relief that we in 1999 can still slip into the intimate world of greyscale Dublin. Such fine black and white is like old chese - we've seen it before but now more than ever it comes across as rich and zesty, celebrating the maturity of cinema and the subtle tonality of light in the absence of colour.

Below: Cahill with his two wives
The General has been out on video in Ireland for two years now, but its finally exhausted the festival circuit and found its way to Australia. Lucky for us because it is a rare glimpse of Boorman's talent. Like many 'serious' filmmakers, most of Boorman's time and effort is lost on film projects that never get the funding or support to see the light of day. Unlike recent British fare to hit our shores, half-arsed commercial prospects like Shooting Fish and Plunkett and Macleane, Boorman's oeuvre takes us back to a school of filmmaking well delineated from American excesses, but sufficiently tuned into audiences' hunger for enthusiastic story-telling. Cahill, played by Martin Gleeson, is an exceptional character, his charm a citadel, his paunch a redoubt of affection and earthiness. It's hard not to admire the spirited way he plays his enemies, eluding capture and conviction, laughing even as they piss on him and felch his pigeons. Although the filmmakers couldn't resist making allusions to Robin Hood, they didn't shy from showing the chilling side of Cahill's pragmatism - if a friend lies or betrays a trust, nail him to a pool table or shoot him in the legs until the truth be told or successfully hidden.

Below: Cahill at trial
Boorman was actually robbed by Cahill before he was killed, yet the film expresses a deep-seated respect for the man. I presume many Irish identified with him as the contemptuous underdog who somehow managed to keep on truckin', balancing bigamy, diabetes, 24 hour police harassment and friends who betrayed him to support their drug habits. Boorman's filmography is a tribute to his love for fantasy and myth, and the General shares this sentimental attraction to the popular figure, the great yarn. It seems to me that some critics are missing the point when they criticise the film for glamourising Cahill and lawlessness. The General is not intended as testimonial or truth, but as a sympathetic parable or a memorable lyric. And it succeeds at being entertaining. Although longer than most films, the bulk of the time slips away in a classy slideshow of well-clipped slo-mo, tight close-ups, face-offs and well-executed hold-ups and heists. Whilst the film's construction is apparent, with many familiar scenes and settings, the General is still something special.

eugene chew
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